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January 2nd is an extraordinary day at the gym. The number one resolution each year is to be healthier, and, after recovering from their hangovers on January 1st, people stampede to the gym in droves. It feels a lot like the first day of camp or something – new and nervous faces and a lot of bunching shorts. Of course, unlike camp, most people won’t make it a month.
I like seeing the new people, but I don’t like the crowded locker room or waiting for machines. More specifically, I don’t like that some woman was using my unofficial locker, which she should have obviously known was mine through either ESP or osmosis. I don’t like watching someone misuse weights and ignore the advice of the personal trainer who comes over to help.
It’s on these rare days that the gym regulars that I usually can’t stand (The Grunter, Guy Who Only Works Out His Biceps And Nothing Else, The Samurai, Guy Talking On His Cell Phone At The Gym) are my unlikely allies. When, for example, a newbie is somehow taking up an entire bench in the locker room with her shit, I can lock eyes with Girl Who Thinks She Is A Boxer Even Though She’s Really Just An Owner Of Boxing Gloves and, for one moment, not hate her with my entire heart.
Still, there’s something thrilling about seeing the new guys. It’s kind of like that scene in Shawshank Redemption when all the new prisoners arrive and the old prisoners bet on who’s going to cry first – everyone remembers their first day. On one hand, you want everyone to survive. On the other hand, you want to think that you were special simply by surviving yourself.
I like to guess who’s going to stay. Most people fade out and completely disappear by the middle of February. A handful keep showing up – even during the coldest days of the last half of the winter, even after it heats up, even if something goes wrong in their lives. It’s like guessing who’s going to get shot in a war movie.
For example, last year on January second, I noticed a big guy with a scruffy beard who was new – the kind of guy you see in Queens that is obviously a recent immigrant from any number of vague Eastern European countries that didn’t exist when I took geography in sixth grade. He was half-jogging, half-running on the treadmill and looking shy although pretty damn determined. He was there every single day until I switched gyms last spring, but I still see him at the local grocery store sometimes, looking utterly transformed. We still nod at each other – like we’ve been though something together (camp or prison or war, according to my lame mixed metaphors).
But for every determined scraggly bearded guy, there were ten people I saw today who won’t make it to next week. Some of them are easy to pick out: the girls with the brand new matching workout outfits that look like something Aerobics Barbie would slip into for her new animated video. The dudes who come to lift weights in jeans and work boots. The girl who tries to do the stair climber with chandelier earrings.
It all works out in the end, though. The people who stay are the people who we, the motley crew of regulars with our own idiosyncrasies, would like to stay, for the simple reason that they want to stay. If they keep coming, they’ll learn. The awkward mom who didn’t quite understand how to do the rowing machine will perfect it in a month. The 70-year-old grandfather who walks on the treadmill for 30 minutes each day will learn to not wear dress socks. The hipster chick with the leg warmers will soon enough trade in her five-pound weights for ten-pound weights, and then fifteen. Soon enough, we’ll all be nodding at each other in the grocery store. It’s a good feeling.
You might think that I date Ben because he’s loving and supportive. Or because he’s an ambitious and successful sports writer. Or because he’s smart and hilarious and inquisitive and fun.
But you’d all be wrong. I keep Ben around because he used to be a personal trainer and for years now I’ve been taking advantage of his free advice and training sessions. The way I look at it, I’m practically making $60 every time we go to the gym together. Sure, when we go out I have to deal with girls flinging themselves at his chiseled six-pack like how birds fly into windows and sure, I have to deal with making him feel better every time someone makes fun of the place where his neck is supposed to be – but it’s all worth it for the free health and fitness advice.
Like yesterday, for example, when we completed the Dread Circuit. The Dread Circuit is the hardest workout routine we do – and we do it probably two to three times a week. It consists of 20 minutes of throw-up-in-your-mouth ab work and 40 minutes of cardio weightlifting. Cardio weightlifting, for those not familiar, is exactly like regular weightlifting except that your body is on fire and you can’t breathe the whole time.
Still, even though this sounds bad, it’s probably the most challenging and rewarding physical undertaking I complete all week. And it makes the next day’s workout (cardio and light lifting) feel as easy and free as eating a tub of popcorn while watching Dr. Phil in my underwear.
And that’s just one of the many really general things I’ve learned. Here are some more:
A gym buddy makes everything better. I really don’t know how people go to the gym every day alone, without someone to hold them accountable. As totally awesome as I feel on my way home from the gym, I usually feel a lot more like huddling in the dark in a fetal position while moaning when I get home from work. Ben confirmed it: the people who are consistent and the people who succeed almost always have a buddy to help them out along the way – to honk with the car running in the driveway, to spot you when you’re weight-lifting, and to keep you in check.
Routine is good, but so is variety. Before I knew Ben, I did the same exact things at the gym every time I went. Even though it’s good to consistently show up at the gym it’s not good to consistently do 30 minutes on the elliptical and then do the same ten ab exercises. You have to constantly shock and surprise your body – and make sure you’re working everything and not wearing out the same six muscles day after day. For cardio, mix the elliptical with the stationary bike and the treadmill and the stair climber, for example. Ben, who is a superstar, mixes weights, cardio, boxing, jujitsu, yoga, circuits, and Pilates.
If you’re a girl, don’t be afraid of bulking up. Ben said something he always heard from women who were starting workout plans was that they didn’t want to lift weights because they didn’t want to look like a man. To which Ben said, seriously, don’t worry about it. Unless you’re really lucky, the only things weightlifting will do to you is tone your body and distribute your weight better, help you burn fat, and strengthen your bones. Oh, and it makes you feel awesome. It won’t make you look like the Hulk – women have a natural layer of body fat, not to mention we just don’t have the hormones to jack up like men do.
Really, don’t be afraid of the gym in general. In my pre-Ben years, I was certain that everyone at the gym 1) looked like models 2) knew exactly what they were doing 3) would stare at me for a moment, then nudge their model friend, then point, then laugh. But now I know that the gym is filled with helpful, normal-looking people who are generally excited that you, too, are at the gym. If you don’t know how to use a piece of equipment, don’t hesitate to ask someone – I recommend the funny, supportive guy with neck-esteem issues.
…and don’t be afraid of the free weights. Even after I was comfortably going to the gym, I was terrified of the free weights section, where the grunty men with back braces would congregate. I made up excuses not to learn free weights (which I now love and prefer) because I “didn’t want to encroach on their space” or “look like an idiot with my 8-pound baby weights.” To which Ben responded, “Screw them.” It’s a good philosophy in general.
Just because you went to the gym doesn’t mean you worked out. You have to push yourself even after you’ve motivated yourself to walk through the door. There’s this one woman I see at the gym every day reading a fitness magazine and pedaling on the reclined bike like she’s driving her grandfather to church. This woman probably thinks that she works out for an hour everyday when in fact she’s only doing some light reading. There’s also a guy who is there everyday who stands around where the weights are in his badass workout outfit, not doing much except talking about how much he can bench (if he ever tried it out). He should at least be looking for wherever his sleeves went.
Don’t feel bad if you miss a day. Don’t sacrifice your social life. Don’t miss that totally awesome Lifetime Movie about kidnapping newborns. Don’t beat yourself up if you just feel too tired or sick or just need a break. However, try not to miss two days in a row (if you’re not sick or injured), because two days usually turns into three. This week, for example, I want to go out after work on Friday when I’d usually be at the gym. So I’m getting up a little early to do some living room yoga.
Know the difference between “the burn” and pain. It’s good to work hard, but it’s just as important to know when to stop or when to take a day off. A good rule of thumb is that you should have to take a shower when you get home and possibly burn your gym clothes. You should not have to cry while taking the shower. Being uncomfortable isn’t always bad, and pushing yourself is the only way that you’ll improve. On the other hand, an injury will keep you out of the gym for days or weeks and set you back.
Take advantage of your free personal training session. You usually get one when you join a new gym, and if you don’t you can usually ask for one and get it. He or she will show you how to use all the machines correctly and give you a basic routine that’s right for your goals. For free! You probably don’t even have to sleep with him if you don’t want to.
Exercise makes you feel awesome. Duke did a study recently that showed that exercise works just as well as antidepressants. And while I don’t recommend you drop your meds and start jogging, I’ve found going to the gym feels to me very similar to meditating. You clear your mind and focus on your body. After a few weeks, even though I looked almost exactly the same (and even put on a few pounds because I was building muscle), I had so much more plain love for the awesome and wonderful machine that my body was.